On Agatha Christie

I confess I am not a fan of the middle section of most orthodox biographies, when the subject is being busy and productive and the biographer feels obliged to detail every lunch they attended, every trip they took. Laura Thompson’s biography of Agatha Christie sidesteps this tendency neatly, by taking a far more narrative line through her life. Chapters look at different aspects of her existence – motherhood, the reception of her books, her time spent on archaeological digs, as they become relevant along a chronological time line. This I loved, and it gave me a much better sense of Agatha Christie as a person. But it also came with some more dubious strategies, such as taking the novels Christie wrote under her pseudonym of Mary Westmacott as straightforward evidence of what she felt and thought about her early life and first marriage. There is much less quotation from archive materials, which makes for a lighter, freer read, but at the same time you feel that a great deal of information may in fact be speculation. It’s rather hard to tell. I find biography a fascinating genre, but I think it’s devilishly hard to write.

Agatha Christie grew up strong, beautiful, talented and cherished. She was, as she said herself, ‘a lovely girl’. She was the third child of Frederick and Clara Miller, an afterthought, who was not allowed to go to school like her older brother and sister, but stayed home with her loving but possessive mother. When her father died, the bond between Agatha and Clara only grew stronger. But Agatha was a deeply romantic young woman, who fell for the dashing Archie Christie near the start of WW1. Clara did not like him much, but Agatha was determined, and they married one weekend he was on leave, entering into one of those oddly dislocated marriages of passion that wars tend to promote. Archie survived, but Agatha did not quite realise how affected he had been by combat. She loved to travel and wanted to socialise, whilst Archie could only face quiet evenings in at the end of the working day. By this time, Agatha had written a couple of detective stories. She did not think it could possibly amount to a career, although her writing was undoubtedly boosted by an underlying competitiveness with her older sister, who had put on a play in London, seemingly without trying.

Agatha adored Archie Christie, but her romantic idea of relationships gave her no indication of what to do when they went

The lovely girl

wrong. Her tendency was to assume everything would just come right. And things may have done, except for the death of Clara Miller in 1926. Agatha had been so close to her mother that her death was an immense blow. She moved back to her beloved family home, Ashfield, ostensibly to clear her mother’s things out, but she was low and suffering and unable to tackle the chore with her usual energy. Meanwhile, Archie hated emotional problems, could not bear to face them, and he embarked on an affair, one so serious that when he came to visit, he asked Agatha for a divorce. Agatha was reeling under the grief of her loss already, and so this news was intolerable. She begged Archie to return to the marriage, and he tried for a while, without success.

It was at this time that Agatha Christie staged her disappearance. To recount it, Laura Thompson moves fully into fictional narrative, imagining her in a fugue state brought on by her misery, only half aware of what she was doing when she abandoned her car on gloomy wasteland near a rather ominous looking pool, with her fur coat and suitcase inside it. She caught a train to London and onto Harrogate, registering under the false name of Teresa Neele (Neele being the name of Archie’s mistress). She had left letters, though, one to her secretary Charlotte Fisher, that was somewhat hysterical, a calmer one to Archie’s brother, saying she was ill and going to a spa to recuperate. Unfortunately, when the police came on the scene, the officer in charge was convinced that the set up of the car by the pond indicated foul play, and although he knew of the letters she had sent, he chose to believe Charlotte’s and to discount the factual one to Archie’s brother. The press scented a juicy story and in no time at all, Agatha Christie was headline news. For over a week she dominated the front pages, the public was mobilised into search parties sweeping across the area where her car was found, and suspicion increasingly fell on Archie (who behaved rather foolishly trying to hide his genuine guilt over the affair).

When Agatha Christie was finally tracked down, the official line was that she was suffering from amnesia. The police were seriously annoyed, having been made to look rather silly, the press was of course outraged and demanding retribution and Agatha Christie’s name was mud. She was vilified as a hysterical attention-seeking woman, after publicity for her books. She was in fact an intensely private person, who would have found having her name in the papers a cause for shame, so this outcome was clearly not at all what she had wanted. The hue and cry did, however, make her famous, and every book she subsequently wrote was a bestseller.

The Queen of Crime

This series of events marks a notable threshold in Agatha Christie’s life. Thompson suggests that she never really got over Archie Christie and the events surrounding the end of her marriage. From this point onwards she wrote compulsively and guarded her privacy fiercely. She married again, a much younger man, the archaeologist Max Mallowan and although considered an odd alliance in most people’s eyes, it seemed to work well for both of them. The rest of her life was really quite calm, unsurprisingly considering how much she wrote; it can’t have left much time over. The only –although that’s not quite the word – battle she had left to fight, was with the rapacious demands of the taxmen in America and the UK. Her agents probably did not do enough to protect her. When she died, she left only £100,000, which is not much money for someone whose sales were only topped by Shakespeare and the Bible. And as ever the end of her life is rather sad; her era had been and gone, she was belittled behind her back by the editors and agents who worked for her, critical attention was against her and she was old, fragile and often querulous.

Laura Thompson asks some pertinent questions about the Agatha Christie legacy. If she is not a good writer, why does she way outsell other Golden Age greats like Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers? Critics have called her books formulaic, disinterested in the emotional realities of death, cosy and artificial, xenophobic and racist. And yet still she sells in millions. She had something, Thompson insists, that we need.

26 thoughts on “On Agatha Christie

    • Ms Thrifty – I felt sorry for her too! She was such a private person, so that intrusion of the press and her later vilification by them (when they were the ones who had spread all the rumours and caused all the fuss, as usual) must have been mortifying and so unfair. It really did affect the rest of her life. And do read a biography of her – she is so interesting (you can read this biography, if you like!).

  1. Hmm, I am not sure how I feel about a biography slipping into fictional narrative. Did it work for you?

    I would have guessed that Christie was a romantic at heart based on the novels of hers that I have read.

    I do like Agatha Christie’s mysteries, although I am hard pressed to come up right now with any definitive reason why. I don’t enjoy the racist or xenophobic aspects, but I do like the coziness and the formula. And while the murder, victims, witnesses et al may be a bit sketchy and interchangeable from book to book, I love the idiosyncrasies of Miss Marple, Inspector Slack, Poirot, Hastings, Miss Lemon and Inspector Japp. And not to forget, the fictional mystery novelist Mrs. Oliver, Poirot’s sometimes sidekick, who is often moaning about her choice of making her detective Finnish.

    • Ruthielle – I confess I found the slip into narrative a bit irksome. It does sort of work ; you can see what the author is getting at. But it also feels funny and awkward and one’s natural instincts are all to challenge the representation. Oh and I should say as well that the author gives away the endings of loads of the novels – really spoiler alert! I like Agatha Christie partly because she is always so funny. Her narratives are often witty. And the plotting is always excellent.

  2. Agatha Christie is one of my favorite authors yet I knew little of the facts about her life. I didn’t realize she wrote under another name or had a bad first marriage. I also did not know she was an archaeologist. Now I want to read this myself.

    • Anne – she is worth reading about. On the whole her life was quiet and productive, but her two marriages are both fascinating in their ways, and her disappearance is extraordinary. She was very keen on helping her husband, Max Mallowan, at digs, but as a menial worker. A lot of the time she disappeared into her hut to write, where she was sure of not being bothered!

  3. There is nothing like an Agatha Christie book on tape when I’m traveling. The latest was Death On The Nile last month. I probably have more books by Agatha Christie than any other author on my shelves, with the exception of Dickens. And although I figured out Murder On The Orient Express just before Poirot revealed all, it was still very clever (as Christie usually is) and I had to say to myself, “Well, I’ll…be…damned.” The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, on the other hand..I didn’t see that one coming. Pow! Right between the eyes. That clever, clever Agatha. Formulaic or not, her books are just plain fun. I’m all for that (besides, I like to see if I can solve the caper before Poirot does.)

    • Grad – I don’t think I’ve ever solved a mystery before Poirot – and that’s also why I like her. I’m a fan of Agatha Christie. It’s not easy to write something so smooth and easy to swallow and make it darned clever too. A friend of mine, incidentally, strongly recommends Dickens on audio book. She says he is excellent that way – I will have to make the experiment!

  4. Agatha sounds like such a fascinating woman–I’d like to read a biography of her sometime and have something on my reading piles (is there one you recommend?). I really enjoy biographies but they are really hard to do, aren’t they? Either they go on endlessly with more (often tedious bits) information than you want to know (how far back into parents/grandparents histories do they need to go?) or you’re not sure how accurate the author is. In any case, Agatha’s books are some of my favorite comfort reads, whatever the critics want to throw at her, she was like you say, doing something right! And she was quite clever–her solutions are almost always surprising!

    • Danielle – well this is it! I enjoy biographies, but all those grandparents and great-grandparents make my head hurt! The choice of Agatha Christie biographies are: Laura Thompson, which as you can see I did enjoy and found easy to read (but it gives away LOTS of the endings which is a shame), the official biography by Janet Morgan (good, but traditional) and a book by Jared Cade that focuses mostly on the disappearance and is rather unreliable and sensationalised (according to Thompson). It’s a tricky choice! As for Agatha’s books, I really love them too. It’s as much a skill to write so easily and amusingly whilst being clever as it is to write a challenging clever book.

  5. I never knew that Agatha Christie staged her own disappearance. That is an interesting part of her life. I read many of her books compulsively when I was in grade school, and I loved The Mousetrap! As an adult, I have a much harder time staying interested in mysteries though I know plenty of people love them.

    You are right that biography is a tricky genre for an author to master. If the subject leaves limited personal information behind, such as diaries or letters, then it is hard for the author to create an accurate picture of the person about which he or she is writing. I also think that many literary biographies tend to focus too much on the subject’s writing in terms of explaining the actions, thoughts, or feelings in the person’s life. Such biographies tend to become much too tedious when that happens.

    • Ali – you know I think you are quite right. Writers are not to be relied upon for writing the truth – far from it! Most can rarely resist embellishments or embroidery or making things turn out the way they wanted! And whenever we write letters, we word them to please the person we are writing too – it’s human nature! I remember reading a Janet Malcolm book (I love her) in which she pointed out that fiction is the only realm where you can talk about truth and make judgements, because you know all there is to know. In real life all you can have is one more perspective; you’ll never know the truth of what happened.

  6. I did feel a bit uneasy about the degree of speculation and fictionalisation involved in this biography, though the imagined account of the disappearance sounded convincing enough for something without much evidence to back it up.

    I think people often discount Agatha Christie unfairly, but she writes very well. Sometimes ‘cosy’ is just what you want. Last year I read a book that was co-written by members of the detection club, including Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers (‘The Floating Admiral’)- each writing a chapter at a time. Reading the introduction and the book I was struck by the way that the murder mysteries are written almost as a puzzle- the aim being to find out who did it based on the clues. I think a lot of readers approach the books that way, but maybe it’s not taken into account critically? The books are stories, but in some ways are almost like literary crosswords. Which, much as I enjoy, I’m not very good at solving. Anyway, sorry for rambling on in the comments, but it was nice to hear your thoughts on the biography!

    • Catie – Well I agree with you – I think Christie writes well too. If you look closely she is extremely economical with words and yet makes a vivid effect. Plus she’s very very clever at plotting. I think to dismiss ‘cozy’ is unfair, too. It’s just one more subgenre, like hardboiled, or tartan noir (Scottish crime) or the psychological thriller. It would be just as silly to dismiss any of those, either. I wondered what you thought of the speculation, and I’m glad to have your opinion, which does chime very much with my own.

  7. I will need to read one of her novels one of these days as I haven’t read her anymore since school. At that time I liked her very much but I didn’t even feel like keeping her books. I thought they were formulaic and once you knew how they worked you always found the culprit early on.
    I had read about the disappearance before, quite mysterious. When you see her photo you don’t imagine that anything remotely wild might have happened to her.
    Yes, it seems she offers something people need.
    I can’t remember now whether her books were funny at all.

    • Caroline – I think her books are very amusing, but as ever, that’s just my opinion. I researched crime fiction for a while and it is a very interesting area. The idea is that narrative manifests its most ‘rescuing’ function here, in that a problem is posed, and one that threatens a rip in the fabric of society with the evil criminal on the loose. Then the narrative works to use storytelling to make sense of what happened retrospectively, the culprit is identified and the society is safe. This biography speculates that Agatha Christie’s huge output after her disappearance was in one sense a desire to experience this feeling of rescue and safety over and over again for the comfort it could bring. That struck me as quite intriguing.

  8. I’d read about this biography, and there was also a tv biopic not too long ago. Like all creative types, Christie obviously had a tendency to the erratic in her private life despite a carefully crafted public image. Your review is very thorough and gives me a good idea of the book which is helpful as I may not get round to reading it. As for her books, they don’t appeal to me, but I see nothing wrong in reading being escapist from time to time. The equivalent of Enid Blyton for children perhaps?

    • Ouch! Tom that’s a bit harsh, no? Enid Blyton really did write the same book over and over, whereas Christie’s puzzles are always very cleverly resolved and differently structured. Many crime fiction writers have pinched her plots subsequently, but she was the first to think them up. I saw that biopic advertised – at Christmas wasn’t it? But I would always rather read the biography – more detail!

  9. She was a lovely girl. And a fascinating one. I can understand after all that happened the desire to disappear for awhile. Makes me feel a bit sad for her. Obviously there is something attractive about her writing no matter what the critics say.

    • Stefanie – I really feel for her. She did a foolish thing to try to win her husband back, and in no way expected the police and the press to react as they did (that’s the interpretation Thompson gives and it seems very reasonable). She was such a private person, it must have completely mortified her. And I really enjoy her books. She is always an intelligent writer.

  10. Oh her end is sad–and yet her books live on and keep selling. I also dislike the xenophobia and racism, but what I do like is that her books are wry and the deaths aren’t real. Cozy is exactly the right word. An Agatha Christie book goes with pj’s, cocoa, a storm outside and the roof not leaking!

    • Lilian – not that Christie writes anything that wasn’t common currency in her era, and she isn’t as bad as many others! And I really enjoy the cozy aspect too. If we could face reality undiluted all the time, then we wouldn’t read in the first place. 🙂

    • Kate – it does seem to bear out Oscar Wilde’s saying that no publicity is bad publicity. But it’s rather regrettable, isn’t it, and doesn’t show humanity in the best light! She had a very interesting life – well, I find that all writers do. They seem to be more particularly eccentric and strange than other types of artists!

  11. I never knew any of these things about Christie. I don’t often research the authors I read because I feel like if I know too much of their background I might read things into their work that aren’t there. But I do think I should change on this since the things in one’s background are so relevant to what they do right and it would give me insight to know what they are. This was just so fascinating to hear this about Christie!

    • Kathleen – I confess I am always intrigued to hear about the life behind the books. After all, the book is a manifestation of the author’s imagination, their fantasies and their deepest fears and desires – what more could we possibly know about them? The biographical details are just the circumstantial context, if you see what I mean! And Agatha Christie is a very intriguing person.

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